Feb 2022

Reflecting On The Olympics: How Not To Build Consensus To Meet Long-Term Challenges In The U.S.

As I watch the horrors unfolding in Ukraine at the hands of Russia and the echoes of Europe’s troubled past playing out today, I can’t help thinking back to the Winter Olympics as a small, missed opportunity to rally the country.

This year’s Olympics, as you may recall, was the worst from a TV ratings standpoint. NBC averaged 11.4 million viewers in prime time, a 42% decrease from the 2018 Games.

The United States engaged in a diplomatic boycott and didn’t send any government officials or representatives.

Friends and commentators spoke frequently about their own decision to boycott tuning in lest they give Beijing and China’s human rights abuses unnecessary attention and support.

And the Games were marred with mishaps, controversy, and questions about what of the Olympic spirit remains.

But rallying the American people behind the common cause of cheering for our athletes against the likes of China and Russia — excuse me, the farcical “Russia Olympic Committee” — is exactly what America could have used to take a small step to get back on track. Here’s why.

It’s known that Americans are divided at present. We disagree on common goals for the country and the means to get us there.

In an important piece on leadership several years ago, Harvard Business School Professors Clayton Christensen and Howard Stevenson illustrated that when an organization or a nation has such fundamental disagreement, that democracy, culture, a nation’s history, folklore, and the like are useless in creating cooperation and change.

As a result, a nation like the United States, which thankfully relies on the tools of the democracy to govern, is in a rut.

One way to dig out of this dynamic is to experience success. Success can build agreement on goals and cause-and-effect — and gradually move a nation to a footing in which the tools of culture, storytelling, leadership, and democracy are more effective.

As one example, when Singapore was expelled from Malaysia in 1964, the tiny impoverished nation was comprised of ethnic Chinese, Indian, and Malays whose cultural traditions, family structures, and religious beliefs shared little common ground.

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew stepped to the fore in this chaotic environment and dictated autocratically — using power tools — a set of rules by which Singaporeans would live. By following those rules, Singapore became one of the most prosperous, modern, and safe places on earth to live.

A strong set of beliefs on how to create and maintain a society such as theirs coalesced among Singaporeans. Those rules are different from those that are commonly followed in western democracies, but the success has nonetheless migrated Singapore to a place where rituals, customs, folklore, and more are effective in creating cooperation.

The autocratic tools Lee Kuan Yew used to compel cooperation should remain out of bounds in the United States. What we can learn from Singapore, however, is that when as a nation we confront challenges and experience success together, we can create more trust and commonality.

Conversely, failure creates more splintering — which helps to explain what has happened as we confronted COVID as a nation.

Turning the Olympics into a pep rally for America wouldn’t have created a sea change or been an overnight fix.

But some old-fashioned patriotic rooting for the U.S. athletes during the Olympics would have done us some good. Perhaps it could have created more ground and space for us to navigate the graver dangers confronting the world that will require sustained effort, attention, and sacrifice.

To those who self-righteously proclaimed they were boycotting the Olympics, unabashed cheering for the United States would have been the opposite of supporting China.

Rooting for the elegance of figure skater Nathan Chen, the explosiveness of speed skater Erin Jackson, the dominance of snowboarder Chloe Kim, and the swan song of champion Shaun White would have brought us together as a nation.

Even in the U.S. Olympic team’s struggles — the women hockey team’s loss to Canada in the gold medal game or Mikaela Shiffrin’s foibles — there were positives for the country, be it the thrill of rooting for a team that has medaled in every major tournament or bearing witness to Shiffrin’s poise and grace amidst heartbreak.

And what would have been better than Americans together protesting the United States not receiving a gold medal in the team ice skating event after it became known that a member of the Russia Olympic Committee team had tested positive in December for a banned substance?

As I reflect back, I hope that as we move forward, our nation’s leaders can find some other places to build some shared success, no matter how small.


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